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Overshadowed by the Light

Image by Bruce Herman

Miriam, Virgin Mother detail central panel - "Overshadowed"

Luke 1: 34-38

34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you (emphasis mine). So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For no word from God will ever fail.”

38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.

Most images and icons of Mary depict her as serene, pure and yet she is unmovable like a mountain. Now, depending on the icon writer’s theological intent, icons either collapse relational distance or enlarge it. Traditionally, Mary might smile or weep and yet, like Michelangelo’s Pietà, she is the mother who is larger than life, where glorious events happen about her, but she is not overcome.

Bruce Herman’s Miriam, Virgin Mother in his series Magnificat both breaks and plays within this tradition of visually reading Mary. His detail central panel titled "Overshadowed" captures the moment when God, who is Light “and in whom is no darkness at all” (1 Jn. 1:5), overshadows Mary with the power of the Holy Spirit and brings about the mystery of the Incarnation: A virgin with child. In this moment, she becomes theotokos, God-bearer. Herman uses hints or impressions of blue, green and red in her head garment which are traditional colors associated with Mary and her dress is white with a sheen of gold. Unlike other images of the Annunciation where Mary is upright and quietly praying, Herman’s Mary lays on the ground as if she’s collapsed, her left hand clutches the fabric at her waist. She’s neither afraid nor exuberant; she’s transfixed as if she’s seeing a vision not of this world but Heaven. There is a line that captures the intensity of this image in the poem ‘Annunciation’ by Scott Cairns, “She burns but she is not consumed.”

God reveals aspects of His divine nature through elements like fire (all consuming), light (without darkness) and gold (purity and magnificence) to communicate His otherness or value. I’m always interested in the imaginative weaving of ideas and images which is one of the reasons I love art. Anyone familiar with art knows that while light can enhance an image, it can also degrade it. Museums take every precaution they can to preserve a work made from most materials and limit exposure whereas pure gold is not diminished by light. This Mary, an earthen vessel of flesh and blood is not degraded by light: she is illuminated by it.

In this liminal space, Heaven, represented with seven gold squares set in the middle of the canvas and the blue and gold background, comes down to earth and restores it to wholeness. Here, Mary is captivated by the light. What she sees, hears or feels, we don’t know, but I think of Job 23:10, “But He knows the way that I go and when He has tested me, I shall come forth as gold.” In life, Mary wasn’t always perfect, but she captured the Most High’s attention in that she was a woman of the Heavenly vison: she was both vulnerable and obedient to His Word.

As a new mother, I research everything I can think of to prepare my child for life and have discovered a world of social media moms who look like Superwoman. Yet, Herman’s “Overshadowed” Mary challenges me to gaze upon the glory of God, to be open to His call on my life and obedient to the Heavely vision. Mary was a woman that He could work with and do something never imagined so that the memory of Isaiah 48:6-7 could echo in her flesh, “Now I am revealing new thing to you, things hidden and unknow to you. Created just now, this very moment. Of these things you have heard nothing until now. So that you cannot say, Oh yes, I knew this.”

How then should we live our lives in light of what we have seen?

“For with You is the fountain of life; in Your light we see light.” ~Psalm 36:9

“The city had no need of the sun or of the moon to shine in it, for the glory of God illuminated it. The Lamb is its light. And the nations of those who are saved shall walk in its light, and the kings of the earth bring their glory and honor into it. ~Revelation 21:23-24


Bruce Herman

Miriam, Virgin Mother detail central panel - "Overshadowed"

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